Last Sunday, as the city braced for an estimated three feet of snow, Jon Lamberton stood next to Mayor Bill de Blasio and did his job – signing the news of the potentially deadly storm to deaf New Yorkers.
But Lamberton, 38, who is deaf, stole the show with his very expressive style of American Sign Language (ASL) that includes broad gestures with his body and face.
Two days after the press conference, Jon Stewart dubbed Lamberton the “best silent mayoral hype man,” on a Daily Show segment that poked fun at the over-preparation for an underwhelming storm.
“I don’t give a damn what Jon Stewart thinks,” Lamberton in an online chat interview with Metro. “My interpretation is for the deaf community, not for people’s entertainment.”
Lamberton is part of a small but growing community of certified interpreters who are themselves deaf. When he interprets press conferences for the mayor as a freelancer, he has a hearing ASL interpreter in the audience – sometimes his wife, Andria Alefhi – who signs what the mayor says, which Lamberton then interprets for a deaf audience.
Lamberton said his “fluent” style of ASL appeared even more expressive when he was standing next to a “nonvisual” mayor speaking stoically at a podium.
And while Lamberton said he was still honored that Stewart was “complimenting me in his own way,” he felt obligated to be an “unintentional advocate” since his interpreting went viral.
“Interpreters usually are ‘behind the scenes’ and it’s my preference not to be in the limelight,” Lamberton said. “I actually was struggling whether to do any interviews and ended up only doing a few. I decided it was important to explain why people might have seen such a striking style.”
Lamberton, who was born to deaf parents, called the education of many deaf people a “massive failure,” so he works to make issues such as blizzards and Ebola more understandable.
“It’s not so much the information not being there, but the information being in a form that isn’t understood by as many deaf people as possible,” Lamberton said. “Let’s lets say the word ‘potholes.’ A terrible interpreter might sign the sign for ‘pot’ then ‘hole, (an)other interpreter might spell the word. I showed a road and then showed hole within the road. A more visual form, because the exact word doesn’t really exist in ASL.”
Lamberton, a California native, said the majority of his work is on court cases. He is one of three certified deaf interpreters in the country who are certified to work on legal cases, and works in New York and New Jersey courts to help interpret when a deaf person does not understand standard ASL.
A foodie who enjoys traveling, Lamberton also plays second base for an all-deaf softball team in Queens called the Rotten Apples.
Lamberton said he’s already seen change come from his story. He’s learned new training programs are being discussed in Japan and England for CDIs, and that the owners of a dry cleaners near his East Village home saved a clipping from a Chinese newspaper about him.
“I think I’m less interested in my own fame than others are,” Lamberton joked.